Friday, December 8, 2017

The Convenient Backstory

I went looking for an example of the player using a backstory to manipulate a DM's world, and found a doozy.  This is marvelous.  The Reddit thread is a long diatribe in which a player bemoans a DM of committing the unforgiveable sin of ignoring the player's backstory, outlined at the top of the thread:

"In my recent campaign, there was an army of hobgoblins being a threat to a major city. I wanted to go back my dwarf mountain to get the help of my fathers military who I was a high ranking officer in. I told everyone about it in my backstory in the beginning of the game. Now as I go back to the mountain the dm [sic] disregards my backstory and puts in his own version of my characters home. He makes it so I'm a nobody dwarf and my family name is shared by everyone and nobody knows who I am. Even though i stated earlier about where I am from and who I was before I went into adventuring. How should I talk to the dm [sic] about this. He just makes jokes and says he doesn't care. Mostly because he doesn't want me to do that. What should I do?"

The remainder of the thread consists of others who deeply respect the suffering of the player, who rush to condemn the DM, and who create examples of how they would run the campaign, catering to the player's needs and backstory.  From the point of view of many players, including a lot of my readers, the angst and abuse of the player in the thread is no doubt something they feel themselves, as the bad, bad DM broke the rules ... after all, the DM approved the backstory, so the DM is clearly in the wrong.

I won't contest that.  That back story should never have been approved.

Oh, your father runs his own military.  How wonderful.  And you were a high ranking officer in that army. Marvelous.  It sure is great when, as a player, you can take five minutes and dream up an army on tap for your needs, whenever you want it.  That's what I call earning your way in the game.

It takes half the thread before someone points this out:

I would guess that the probable situation is that neither the player nor the DM are very experienced.  The DM no doubt approved of the story because it sounded pretty good at the time, never thinking what the consequences of that might be.  At the same time, the player was probably just spiffing around with a story idea ... and then after the fact, realized that he could use it to his advantage.  The player is so dissonant about the enormity of the backstory's personal benefit that it's probable the player can't see what's wrong.

That sounds like "new campaign" to me.  Hey, we're all just heroes anyway ~ and heroes in stories always get to go back to their father's and get the help of a big, convenient military for the last showdown with the big bad.  Can't we all think of about thirty movies that end that way?

The remaining commenters appear to have the opinion that, if the DM approved it, then it has to stand, no matter what.  That is complete bullshit.  DMs make mistakes.  They're human.  Even those with a few years experience are capable of missing the consequences of a brief, poorly thought out decision. The only thing that matters here is that Dad's Army (unless it's the British farce) is an UNFAIR advantage and effectively game breaking.

"But he laughed at me!" ... sob, sob, cry, whine ...

If you're a new DM, as I wrote in the previous post for New DMs, stay far, far away from the backstory.  A marginally clever player, with a week to think about it, can engineer a piece of work that will spear you in the ass in ways you never thought possible.


  1. So weird.

    In the past (i.e. back in my teens) when I played AD&D regularly in a long-running campaign (both as a player and alternate DM) we created "backstories" for our characters, but they simply gave us reasons explaining why our young, inexperienced characters were out on adventure. My character DID have a father who was an army general...and he hated my character and had disowned me. Another character had been an orphan that grew up on the streets of what passed for a "big city." Another character had fled a forced marriage to a terrible man and had basically burned bridges with her noble family. And some characters were simply "oh, a dude from a barbarian tribe come down from the mountains."

    These things helped us find a space for ourselves in an established setting, and helped us find...I don't know, "characterization?" Voices? Something. We were young at the time and finding ways to develop a world we'd been spending time in since 4th or 5th grade. But what's described here, in this post, is so, so...

    I don't know. I suppose I and my friends were young and stupid once, and I'm just not remembering the ways we tried taking advantage of stuff. Maybe we did the same bullshit as what's described here...but, man. We didn't have an outlet like Reddit to bitch about being slapped down (rightly so) by our DM.

    Sometimes it feels like kids these days are a bunch of whiny bitches. And I always thought *I* was a whiny bitch. Jeez.

  2. This is just poor communication. The DM should just own up and be like, "I thought the backstory was cool, but no, it wasn't supposed to give you access to an army." But people suck at admitting mistakes, and the player should recognize that: 1. What he is asking is game-breaking; 2. The DM clearly doesn't have an interest in it.

    In my current campaign (running 4 years), I told my players their backstories were limited to "why are you here and why do you adventure? They will offer zero mechanical benefits, and after the first 5-10 sessions they will mostly be discarded as what matters is the narrative you all create together."

    Last sessiom, one of my players was like "out of curiosity, does my backstory screw me on this thing we are doing?" I was so taken aback, it was the first time a backstory had been really brought up in any context beyond motivation in 2-3 years. I responded with, "no, of course not. Three years have passed in game, and you guys were nobodies then. I have zero interest in holding decisions you "made" prior to rolling dice against you."

  3. It's just what we all play RPGs for: to get our "daddy said I could" rocks off!

    Talk about self-made men in self-made epic narratives.

    *dons "My other father's a Sith Lord" t-shirt*.

  4. I agree no backstories before play begins.

    I have been running a one on one campaign for 21 sessions. The campaign is fairly heavy on role playing as it deals with a growing coup against the duke and the player discovering the threats. I started the campaign with the following; your character cannot be from this duchy. Then I never asked the character’s backstory.

    Over the course of the 70 plus hours of play I have learned some of it, and I know the player created one for his character, but it comes out in play thru his interaction with NPCs. Perfect it gives me a lot more enjoyment as a DM to learn some of the player’s side of the story as we go.


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